Few characters have had more chances to tap into the popular psyche than Elvira. Armed with no more than two massive weapons, camp value and a wicked sense of humor, Cassandra Peterson, the actress whom the world calls Elvira, rose to prominence on a wave of innuendo and boob jokes. But her impact shouldn’t be understated. Elvira’s move from the queen of midnight movies to national icon was no small feat.
The 1980s saw Elvira on everything. She had her own syndicated television series, a feature length movie and accompanying video game, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, as well as a host of new products: perfumes, cassette tapes, t-shirts, and, of course, Halloween costumes all bore her mighty cleavage. She was, as far as marketing was concerned, a promotional behemoth. Her skimpy outfits and valley girl cadence gave her license to not take any of this too seriously and, like Pee Wee Herman, attracted fans of all ages to her offbeat and ridiculous world.
Yet, the character was at a standstill most of the time. Starting as the host of late-night creature feature showcase, Movie Macabre, Elvria acted as Crypt Keeper to some of Hollywood’s best B movies. Macabre was the perfect venue for Elvira. There, she could keep her jokes quick and punchy and didn’t have to sustain the weight of a full show’s plot. After all, presenting a movie like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! lends itself perfectly to Elvira’s sense of humor. It was when Elvira had to deal with such issues as story that the seams seemed to split. Elvira’s first big upset, the Razzie Award-winning Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, bombed at the box office.
In 1993, long-time SNL writer Anne Beats wrote a script for a pilot called The Elvira Show. The show was produced shortly thereafter. Seemingly set after the events of Mistress of the Dark, the show sees our heroine moving to Manhattan, Kansas and shacking up with her mischievous Aunt Minerva (Katherine Helmond) and their sassy talking cat, Renfield. To keep a low profile, Elvira sells potions and reads fortunes, because why would someone who sells potions, reads fortunes, and dresses like Morticia Addams want the town knowing that she’s also a witch?
Beats’ script really does have that sketch-comedy vibe to it, but she stretches the single note concept far too thin. A standard multi-cam sitcom loaded with innuendo, The Elvira Show would have worked as a five-minute bit on SNL. At 25 minutes, the show almost runs out of double entendres by the third act. The show’s other beats, like Elvira’s niece coming of age as witch and the FBI wire-tapping Elvira, only muddy the playing field.
Elvira and sitcom vet Katherine Helmond, however, have a fantastic give and take. These two have strong chemistry and a stronger sense of character. With credits that include Soap and Who’s the Boss, Helmond knows the sitcom game in and out, and matched with Peterson’s 13 years in the fishbowl wig, their scenes are as snappy as any sitcom of the era. Elvira does a lot to boost the show’s charm. Much like her movie, The Elvira Show realizes how silly it is and plays up the character’s cheesier assets.
The early-90s weren’t a bad place to shop around an Elvira TV show. With the return of the Addams Family already on its way to quietly burning out, who better to take the reigns of horror comedy than the Mistress of the Dark? Alas, the show was not meant for our time. Instead, the idea was shelved and recycled on Sabrina the Teenage Witch three years later. Had been stronger, Elvira’s unpleasant dreams could’ve been providing audiences with references to her cleavage for years. Luckily, she’d have plenty of more chances to show it off.